With their newest single 'Keep Me Jealous', it's unmistakable proof that The Sam Willows are getting a better grasp of pop reinvention.
While Take Heart had the band clad in white, braving through a sea of technicolour paint in the title track's music video, the promo art that comes with this new single is both vividly colourful and grungy — both a logical aesthetic step for the band and their placement in modern pop music.
"The reason why we chose it for the first single was because we felt that it was a very strong song for us," says Jon Chua of The Sam Willows, "and something that we wanted to demonstrate to our audience — to our fans — that this is Season 2 of The Sam Willows."
'Keep Me Jealous' sounds a lot less like the EDM-inspired effervescence of 'Take Heart' and a lot more like something The Chainsmokers would brew up — which comes as to no surprise that the song was co-produced and co-written by Fredrik Häggstam, who was also responsible for The Chainsmokers' single 'Paris'.
The process of making this song, and their upcoming sophomore release, was enlightening for the foursome.
"It was truly an eye-opener to see how he works, to see his thought process and basically to see how he does things," Chua explains. "Their production is super fast, they are very, very good at achieving a sound that they want that is unique, and yet has a certain sense of familiarity."
We spoke to Jon Chua about writing 'Keep Me Jealous' and preparing the release of their as-of-yet untitled second album, along with the group's growth, dealing with fame and its downsides, and their long-term goals.
What was your experience like with Fredrik Häggstam?
So we actually worked with Fredrik before, for our Take Heart album. He actually helped co-produced some of the other songs on that album. It was kind of a last minute thing because our original producer fell sick last minute so he couldn’t come down to Singapore, so Fredrik came in his place.
We already felt a very strong chemistry with him the first time we met. When we went up [to Sweden] in December last year, this was before his one biggest song came out, which was 'Paris' by the Chainsmokers. We did not know what to expect — we just went up with an open mind, really. When we got in on the first day, 'Keep Me Jealous' was the first song that we wrote with him, all in one day.
The song's whole concept, musically and lyrically, was actually done on the first day when we were there. It was a really cool experience.
The reason why we chose it for the first single was because we felt that it was a very strong song for us, and something that we wanted to at least demonstrate to the audience — to our fans — that this is Season 2 of The Sam Willows.
We thought that this song would be a very good reintroduction. Fredrik is basically quite a genius – he is a very young guy, almost 30. In the industry itself, in Sweden especially, he is very well-respected amongst other producers. Recently, he also started a new collective called BLNK Music. They have really, really good songwriters.
We worked a lot with his topline writers. It was truly an eye-opener to see how he works, to see his thought process, and basically to see how he does things. Their production is super fast, they are very, very good at achieving a sound that they want that is unique, and yet has a certain sense of familiarity.
You said that you guys did the song in one day?
We wrote 'Keep Me Jealous' all in one day, and recorded its vocals at the end of it. It was pretty crazy because we got in the night before around 11pm and we got into the studio at around 10.30am the next day. We didn’t even start the day proper, we just went straight for coffee. We knew Fredrik before that so it was like seeing an old friend.
We went for coffee, we went for lunch, so by the time we actually only started to sit down and said “Okay, we are actually here to write a song, we don’t know what to expect” it was almost 1-2pm. We wrapped the first day by 8.30pm. It was very productive. The four of us we got in, we have never written with a topline writer before and we've never co-written with a producer before, so it was very new for us.
When we actually sat down to do it, it just seemed very natural, in the way we put ourselves in a position — where we are artists writing the song, there are the topline writers, and there's the producer writing the song with us. We told them what kind of sounds we wanted — we were just talking and figuring out what kind of songs do we want to write.
We sat down for half an hour, we listened to a lot of songs. We couldn’t really find a direct reference for 'Keep Me Jealous', but I think the topline writer just came in and was like “Hey, how about the melody line like *sings a melodic line*“. And that was how we basically how we went from the first verse and then we went into the pre-chorus, and then the chorus.
It was really very organic and we were very happy with the process. We felt like we weren’t put in a box and we weren’t forced to do something we weren’t comfortable in. It was very comfortable for us. That’s the word.
Did you feel like everything the band has done so far has been out of your comfort zone?
Yes and no. I think creatively — I guess for a band like us — we have four minds and we get four very different opinions, very different preferences for music, so compromise has always been something very natural for us.
We know how to pick our battles creatively, we know how to adapt and we know how to accept. I think that is something that took us a very long time. Through the Take Heart album, with just the four of us, finding a balance and, now with this new upcoming album, where there are even more parties involved: how do we find that comfort? how do we find that level of compromise?
I won’t go as far as to call it a compromise, I will go as far to call it "co-creation", understanding co-creation. I guess, for most groups or solo artists, getting into the whole concept of collaboration and co-creation is never the first step. No artist comes out as a collaborator.
Slowly, as artists progress — I mean you got artists like Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift, and even your Zayn Malik — the moment they want to explore, dig deeper into their creativity, they search where they want to go into collaboration. For most songwriters, you can’t dig that hard into your creativity alone. You need someone to prompt you, you need someone to hound you into coming up with a certain idea, giving you the confidence to come up with these ideas.
I guess, this next step for us working as a team of six, it was not easy — we did not know what to expect. But, you know, the results were a lot more better than what we expected, heading up to Sweden to record.
"This new album for The Sam Willows is something that we went in with the thought of maturing ourselves. Our audience is growing up, we are growing up, we are no longer in our early 20s anymore — we are all pushing into our late 20s."
— Jon Chua, on their long-gestating second album.
How would you describe the new album to fans?
For most pop groups or pop artists, there has to be progression. I think, this time, we call it the new season.
We want to introduce The Sam Willows with growth in our music. Like how Justin Bieber progressed with the album Purpose, he used to have half the world hating him and half the world loving him, and now he probably has half the world loving him and half the world who actually doesn’t want to admit loving him. At the end of the day, there was growth, and Justin Bieber probably couldn’t do the same kind of music for the rest of his life.
For every artist, a record is important to them because it represents a certain season, a certain part of their life. This new album for The Sam Willows is something that we went in with the thought of maturing ourselves. Our audience is growing up, we are growing up, we are no longer in our early 20s anymore — we are all pushing into our late 20s.
The things we think about, the things we write about, the kind of shows we want to do live: it has to grow with us. We had a trial and error approach with Take Heart album – we knew what we enjoyed, we knew what we liked to do on stage. We kind of got the experience to play in front of a big crowd, we knew what kind of songs would resonate with us as performers, and also resonate with our audience. So this time, we wanted to explore.
One thing I can say is that we definitely explored a lot of different sub-genres and how we took certain elements of the sub-genres to put in our songs. It’s like how there's such a strong EDM and pop crossover, and how there’s a strong hip-hop and pop crossover. All these crossovers, to me, is a form of progression in music and something we want to do with our new songs.
We were very particular in especially with chord progressions and with the sounds with use, the samples with use — it wasn’t orthodox for sure, we definitely wanted to push that boundary. It will definitely be very different from Take Heart. One thing we wanted to do to prepare our audience, especially for those who really loved Take Heart, to prepare them that the new album would not be the same, but the element of The Sam Willows will still retain. The vocal harmony, the nuances that we want to do and the certain arrangements will still be the same — just the overall "mood board" of the new album will be different.
You mentioned that Justin Bieber had to deal with a lot of haters, as much as he had to deal with a lot of fans. The group has had their fair share with both. With the new album, as you mentioned, it demonstrates a growth in the band. How does that extend to the way the group deals with criticism?
There are a lot of reasons why people criticize us for what we do. Sometimes critiques or haters have a certain validity that we can take into consideration. But we don't let it affect us or the decisions we make as a band. The brand is the band.
I've spoken to a lot of people and one person I respect a lot is Charlie Lim. He is a very wise person, I’m sure you’ve spoken to him too. When you have a conversation with him, he has a lot of good advice. The best advice I have ever gotten in my career is actually from Charlie. He once said, "You tend to hate things you don’t understand."
At the end of the day, street cred doesn’t pay the bills. He does make sense to a large extent. I was watching this documentary where they said that there are always statues of sportsmen, statues of great leaders, statues of great musicians, but never a statue of a great critic. We take it in our stride. For every artist out there, there will be haters, no matter who or where, or no matter the proportion. For us, it’s the case of how we handle it.
For the new album, I would say for me — I won’t speak on behalf of the band — I welcome haters, because at the end of the day, at least you've heard the songs. They will definitely be present, but I guess for us, we just learn on a personal level not to let this affect us emotionally and mentally. It’s not healthy, but at the same time, we hear what they have to say and if there’s a valid point, we take it into consideration.
As a band, you guys have had strong pop ambitions. What are some tangible goals you have as The Sam Willows?
I think the most tangible goal, or rather the goal that we really want to do right now, is to push our music beyond Singaporean borders.
We want to push our music to Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Australia – to really prove to the world that there is good substance here in Singapore. I guess, all it takes is really one to put it on the map, but I’m not saying that we are the one.
I’m trying to say that, at the end of the day, we are trying our best to push our music regionally. To me, that is just the first step. I don’t think that the first Singapore artist to win the Grammys will be us. I remember we had an interview years ago, where we said in five years we want to win a Grammy. That’s not going to happen (laughs).
We will still work towards that — that’s like an intangible goal — but at the same time there’s so much talent here in Singapore. I personally started a recording studio company and I’ve been working with, like, 19-year-old musicians and the talent, the experience and the mentality that they have right now at 19 was way more than what I had when I was 19.
When it comes down to it, our goal is to let our music be heard around the world.
The band in Sweden.
Did you hear about Wormrot being added to Glastonbury this year?
Yes, I’m honestly really happy. I read the news and I thought they really deserve it honestly. They have been grinding it for so many years. For them to play at Glastonbury, it’s so amazing.
If there’s a festival The Sam Willows would like to play at, which festival will it be? Hard mode: no Coachella.
That’s makes it a little bit tougher since I was about to say Coachella (laughs). Glastonbury would be another one that comes into my mind. But you know, you can’t kick Coachella out man, that’s like everyone’s dream. That’s pretty much the benchmark for us.
What are some of the strengths of each member, and how did it contribute to the new album?
I think the four of us are very different people. We always joke and say that the four of us will make one very great artist. Ben is very good with copy and very good with words, Sandra is very good at designing, visuals and typography, Narelle is very good at creative ideas. For myself, I enjoy analyzing things – I’m a bit different, compared to the three of them. We feel that we complement each other really well.
I wouldn’t say when we write our music, we really think about that. But we do have some kind of consideration — we go like “oh okay, maybe this song might be a little bit too much hip-hop for our own liking. We have too much of hip-hop, why don’t we pull it back and do it more like the Weeknd's style”. The same concept would come into our mind when we are writing, but I wouldn’t say we construct our ideas upon it.
"When it comes down to it, our goal is to let our music be heard around the world."
— Jon Chua, on the band's future goals.
Can you name five albums that were influential to your upcoming album?
I won’t say albums. At the end of the day, we are doing a pop record, there’s something that ties everything together, yet every song tells a story of its own.
When Freddy agreed to be the creative producer for our whole album, he basically took on the responsibility the whole album conceptually and through marketing eyes. So, we wrote every song with the mentality that it can work as a single. Whether it is a single or not eventually, that doesn’t really matter, but we wrote every song such that it’s meant to be a single.
Collectively, Bruno Mars, Coldplay and The Weeknd were very strong influences, along with Frank Ocean. Individually we had different influences — to me, it was G-Eazy. That west coast hip-hop sound was very influential to me. When we were trying to come up with drums, snare sounds for samples, we bring in that kind of mood from Coldplay and all, but not so much of the kind of sound. We are trying to evoke the same kind of vibes – when you listen to them, it brings out a certain emotion, and how it brings out these emotions as well.
We're not necessarily about copying the style, but we want to copy the kind of emotions that the song tends to bring out. This is something that we find very difficult to do, for pop songs.
Three minutes thirty seconds – how do you tell a story? How do you bring out emotions that could possibly change someone’s life? It’s a big responsibility and it’s a very difficult thing to do without any intention. It’s something that we always ask ourselves. If we can do it, let’s do it. If we cannot do it, let’s not force it. Sometimes that’s what we strive to do.